"Girls who work cooperatively do much better in taking large risks or facing challenges. I often consult with Outward Bound. In one instance, most of the girls were hesitant to climb down a cliff. The instructor then asked the girls to work in pairs or groups, which gave the girls a process and the collective confidence to climb to the bottom. Their voices echoed against the rocks as they said things like, 'check my knots, let's try this path, I can wait for you on this ledge...' In the end, the girls reported an incredible sense of accomplishment and feeling of competence, both of which give a huge jump in self-esteem."
JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
Author, Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters
No matter where our experts stand in the nature/nurture debate, all agree that we want to inspire girls to overcome society's negative stereotypes. They suggest we encourage girls to move just beyond their "comfort zone" to take physical and emotional risks -- challenges that help them build emotional muscles. For some girls, this comes easily; others need support and guidance to find their way.
Breaking this mold, experts say, can start young. For example, simply by encouraging young girls to play with blocks (as well as dolls) you may be helping them increase their spatial awareness, which bolsters their ability to think abstractly. Parents and teachers can encourage even preschoolers to stand up for themselves in conflicts and voice their opinions and feelings to friends, siblings and teachers.
Encourage girls to take physical risks.
JoAnn Deak encourages parents of girls who fear physical challenges to push them a bit beyond their comfort zone — but not so far that they become terrified. For example, you might get your slightly fearful daughter on to that soccer team but offer some extra help and coaching and not pressure her to become a star athlete. Or encourage a girl who's scared to ride her bike downhill to find a small hill and bit by bit to take on greater challenges. Steiner-Adair agrees. "Whether it's through team or individual sports, girls need to feel their bodies as amazing instruments that can run, throw and climb. By getting them involved in physical activities they like, you can help them develop a physical relationship with their body that builds body confidence." Deak also notes that "girls who avoid risks have poorer self esteem than girls who can and do face challenges. And self esteem is a critical component in the health and happiness of females."
Support girls as they develop their own beliefs.
Our experts recommend that in addition to encouraging girls to take physical risks, we encourage them to take social and emotional risks as well. Parents should support their daughters as they stand up for themselves and develop their own belief systems. And as girls get older, they can be prompted to become critics of the media instead of pawns. They can be encouraged to put their natural abilities to empathize and analyze to good use and take positive action in the world around them. In this way, we can encourage girls to use the best of nature and the best of nurture to become strong individuals.
To learn how to raise your girl to be both powerful and a positive influence on the world,
read "Raising a Powerful Girl."
Next: Girls and Their Bodies